Posts tagged ‘alternative investments’

The European Dog Ate My Homework

I never thought my daily routine would be dominated by checking European markets before our domestic open, but these days it is appearing like the European tail is wagging the global dog. Tracking Spanish bond yields from the Tesoro Publico and the Italia Borsa index is currently having a larger bearing on my portfolio than U.S. fundamentals. When explaining short term performance to others, I feel a little like an elementary school student making an excuse that my dog ate my homework.

Although the multi-year European saga has gone on for years, this too shall pass. What’s more, despite the bailouts of Portugal, Ireland, and Greece in recent years, the resilient U.S. economy has recorded 11 consecutive quarters of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth and added more than 4 million jobs, albeit at a less than desirable pace.

Could it get worse? Certainly. Will it get worse before it gets better? Probably. Is worsening European fundamentals and a potential Greek eurozone exit already factored into current stock prices? Possibly. The truth of the matter is that nobody knows the answers to these questions with certainty. At this point, the probability of an unknown or unexpected event in a different geography is more likely to be the cause of our economic downfall than a worsening European crisis. As sage investor and strategist Don Hays aptly points out, “When everyone is concerned about a problem, that problem is solved.” That may be overstating the truth a bit, but I do believe the issues absent from current headlines are the matters we should be most concerned about.

The European financial crisis may drag on for a while longer, but nothing lasts forever. Years from now, worries about the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) will switch to others, like the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) or other worry geography du jour. The issues of greatest damage in 2008-2009, like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, CDS (credit default swaps), and subprime mortgages, didn’t dominate the headlines for years like the European crisis stories of today. As compared to Europe’s problems, these prior pains felt like Band Aids being quickly ripped off.

Correlation Conundrum

Eventually European worries will be put on the backburner, but until some other boogeyman dominates the daily headlines, our financial markets will continue to correlate tightly with European security prices. How does one fight these tight correlations? For starters, the correlations will not stay tight forever. If an investor can survive through the valley of strong security association, then the benefits will eventually accrue.

Although the benefits from diversification may disappear in the short-run, they should not be fully forgotten. Bonds, cash, and precious metals (i.e., gold) proved to be great portfolio diversifiers in 2008 and early 2009. Commodities, inflation protection, floating rate bonds, real estate, and alternative investments, are a few asset classes that will help diversify portfolios. Risk is defined in many circles as volatility (i.e., standard deviation) and combining disparate asset classes can lower volatility. But risk, defined as the potential of experiencing permanent losses, can also be controlled by focusing on valuation. By in large, large cap dividend paying stocks have struggled for more than a decade, despite equity dividend yields for the S&P 500 exceeding 10-year Treasury yields (the first time in more than 50 years). Investing in large companies with strong balance sheets and attractive growth prospects is another strategy of lowering portfolio risk.

Politics & Winston Churchill

Some factors however are out of shareholders hands, such as politics. As we know from last year’s debt ceiling melee and credit downgrade debacle, getting things done in Washington is very challenging. If you think achieving consensus in one country is difficult, imagine what it’s like in herding 17 countries? That’s the facts of life we are dealing with in the eurozone right now.

Although I am optimistic something will eventually get done, I consider myself a frustrated optimist. I am frustrated because of the gridlock, but optimistic because these problems are not rocket science.  Rather these challenges are concepts my first grade child could understand:

• Expenses are running higher than revenues. You must cut expenses, increase revenues, or a combination thereof.

• Adding debt can support growth, but can lead to inflation. Cutting debt can hinder growth, but leads to a more sustainable fiscal state of wellbeing.

Relieving all the excess global leverage is a long, tortuous process. We saw firsthand here in the U.S. what happened to the U.S. real estate market and associated financial institutions when irresponsible debt consumption took place. Fortunately, corporations and consumers adjusted their all-you-can-eat debt buffet habits by going on a diet. As a matter of fact, corporations today are holding records amounts of cash and debt service loads for consumers has been reduced to levels not seen in decades (see chart below). Unlike governments, luckily CEOs and individuals do not need Congressional approval to adapt to a world of reality – they can simply adjust spending habits.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)

Governments, on the other hand, generally do need legislative approval to adjust spending habits. Regrettably, cutting the benefits of your constituents is not a real popular political strategy for accumulating votes or brownie points. If you don’t believe me, see what voters are doing to their leaders in Europe. Nicolas Sarkozy is the latest European leader to be booted from office due to austerity backlash and economic frustration. No less than nine European leaders have been cast aside since the financial crisis began.

The fate for U.S. politicians is less clear as we enter into a heated presidential election over the next six months. We do however know how the mid-term Congressional elections fared for the incumbents…not all sunshine and roses. Until elections are completed, we are resigned to the continued mind-numbing political gridlock, with no tangible resolutions to the trillion dollar deficits and gargantuan debt load. Obviously, most citizens would prefer a forward looking strategic plan from politicians (rather than a reactive one), but there are no signs that this will happen anytime soon…in either party.

Realistically though, tough decisions made by politicians only occur during crises, and if this slow-motion train wreck continues along this same path, then at least we have something to look forward to – forced resolution. We are seeing this firsthand in Greece. The “bond vigilantes” (see Plumbers & Cops) and responsible parents (i.e., Germany) have given Greece two options:

1.) Fix your financial problems and receive assistance; or

2.) Leave the EU (return to the Drachma currency) and figure your problems out yourself.

Panic has a way of forcing action, and we are approaching that “when push comes to shove” moment very quickly. I believe the Europeans are currently taking a note from our strategic playbook, which basically is the spaghetti approach – throw lots of things up on the wall and see what sticks. Or as Winston Churchill stated, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

There is no question, the European sovereign debt issue is a complete mess, and there are no clear paths to a quick solution. Until voters force politicians into making tough unpopular decisions, or leaders come together with forward looking answers, the default position will be to keep kicking the fiscal can issues down the road. In the absence of political leadership, eventually the crisis will naturally force tough decisions to be made. Until then, I will go on explaining to others how the European dog ate my homework.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including commodities, inflation protection, floating rate bonds, real estate, dividend, and alternative investment ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in AIG, JNJ, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 27, 2012 at 7:47 pm 1 comment

Strong Advice from Super Swensen

Muscle Man

Playing the financial markets is a challenging game, and over the last decade we’ve witnessed events we will never see again in our lifetimes. Through these muscle aches and pains, listening and paying attention to powerful, seasoned industry veterans, like David Swensen, becomes paramount. Mr. Swensen has proven his durability – he has managed the Yale endowment for 24 years and has overseen the growth of the university’s portfolio from $1 billion to $17 billion. For the decade ending in June 2008, the Yale portfolio averaged an incredible 16.3% annual return.

So what commanding advice does Mr. Swensen have to share? Here are a few nuggets regarding equities as discussed in his May interview published in The Guru Investor (TGI):

“With a long time horizon you should have an equity orientation, because over longer periods of time, equities are going to deliver better results,” he says. “If they don’t, then capitalism isn’t working. And we could well be at a point where investments in equities are going to produce returns going forward that are higher than what we’ve seen in the past five or ten years.”

 

I find it difficult to argue with him. Perhaps we still have a ways to go, but the equity markets had an explosion after the 1966-1982 hiatus. Perhaps the 2000-2009 period isn’t long enough to mark bottom, but at a minimum, the spring is coiling based on history.

When it comes to diversification, TGI summarized Swensen’s asset allocation as follows:

“He recommends that investors have 30% of their funds in U.S. stocks, 15% in Treasury bonds, 15% in Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, 15% in Real Estate Investment Trusts, 15% in foreign developed market equities, and 10% in emerging market equities. As investors get older, they should keep this type of allotment for a portion of their portfolio but begin to decrease the size of that portion, putting part of their portfolios into less risky assets like cash or Treasuries.”

 

Many investors were taking excessive risk in 2008 (within their asset allocations), and they were not even aware. Let’s hope valuable lessons have been learned and investors adjust the risk levels of their portfolios as they age.

David Swensen (Michael Marsland/Yale University)

David Swensen (Michael Marsland/Yale University)

Mr. Swensen has some choice words for the mutual fund management industry as well:

“The problem is that the quality of the management in the mutual fund industry is not particularly high, and you pay an extraordinarily high price for that not-very-good management,” he says. Swensen cites one study performed by Rob Arnott that measured mutual fund performance over a two-decade period. The study found that you’d have had a 15% chance of beating market after fees and taxes by investing in mutual funds — and that includes only funds that were around for the entire period; many other weaker funds didn’t last, meaning the results have a survivorship bias.

 

Tough to disagree, and as I’ve written in the past, I believe there are only so many .300 hitters in baseball (a study in 2007 showed only 12 active career .300 hitters in the Major Leagues – highlighted in my previous Ron Baron article). Outside of baseball, there are consistent alpha generators in the market too. However, I’d make the case that identifying the alpha generators in the financial markets is much more difficult because of the extreme fund performance volatility. Even the best managers can string some bad years together.

Swensen doesn’t stop there. He expands on the reasons behind mutual fund manager underperformance:

Taxes and fees are the big culprits, Swensen says: “Why are the tax bills so high? Because turnover’s too high. The mutual fund managers are trading the portfolios as if taxes don’t matter, and taxes do matter. And they’re trading the portfolios as if transactions cost and market impact don’t matter, and they do matter. And as they trade the portfolios, basically what’s happening is Wall Street is siphoning off its slice of the pie … and that’s at the expense of the investor.”

 

One thing we learned from the real estate and financial bubble that burst over the last few years is that incentive structures were misaligned. Manager compensation, whether you are talking hedge funds or mutual funds, is based on too short a time horizon, and therefore incentive structures encourage abnormal risk-taking. In baseball terms, you have those that take excessive risk and swing for the mega-bucks fences (loose cannons) and the bunters (benchmark huggers) who seek the comfort of “lower” mega-bucks. Swensen is a much bigger believer in passive strategies (as am I), using passive investment vehicles like ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds).

Mr. Swensen continues his critical perspective by targeting investors too:

Individuals and institutions who buy mutual funds “take this mutual fund industry which produces a bunch of products that are not great to start with, and then they screw it up by chasing hot performance and selling after things turn cold.”

 

The 1984-2002 John Bogle data (Vanguard) included in my “Action Dan” article hammers that point home.

Where should investors go now?

Asked what the one recommendation he has right now for investors is, Swensen cited TIPS. “We’ve had this massive fiscal stimulus, massive monetary stimulus, and it’s hard to see how that doesn’t translate into pretty substantial inflation, or at least pretty substantial risk of inflation … down the road at some point,” he said.

 

Ditto, once again – I’m a believer in having some inflation protection in your portfolio. Of course there is no free lunch in the investment world, and so there are certainly some risk factors in Swensen’s alternative investment strategy (e.g. hedge funds, private equity, and real estate). Certainly, due to significant illiquidity and other factors, many of these areas got absolutely hammered in 2008.

The best investors prepare their portfolios for these strenuous times. Do yourself a favor and work on your muscle tone too – and listen to the strong advice of David Swensen.

Read the Full TGI Article Here

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management and client accounts do have direct long positions in TIP at the time article was originally posted. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 2, 2009 at 12:59 am 2 comments


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